Sri Lanka’s war victors vie in election

Associated Press / January 26, 2010

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - The two architects of Sri Lanka’s civil war victory will face off in a hard-fought election today to determine who will lead this troubled country’s struggle to recover from a devastating quarter-century conflict.

The main candidates, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his former army chief, Sarath Fonseka, were close partners in the campaign to defeat the Tamil Tiger rebels.

But a bitter falling out that drove Fonseka to the opposition has turned an expected easy reelection victory for Rajapaksa into a tight political contest between two men the Sinhalese majority considers war heroes.

Whoever wins control of this island off the southern coast of India will inherit a country still deeply divided by the ethnic conflict and mired in an economic malaise.

“We have freedom now, but we live amid severe economic hardships,’’ said Samitha Perera, 38, a driver in Colombo.

Though there have been no reliable polls, both candidates appear to command strong Sinhalese followings. The Tamil minority may prove to be kingmakers.

Rajapaksa has campaigned on his war record and his promises to bring development to the nation. He branded Fonseka a potential military dictator.

Fonseka, who also pledges an economic renaissance, accused Rajapaksa of corruption and promised to trim the powers of the presidency and empower Parliament if elected.

Neither man has outlined a detailed plan for resolving the grievances of the marginalized Tamil minority that sparked the conflict in the first place.